Defense and intelligence agencies have formed a special unit that will go into Iraq to search for Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, a missing U.S. Navy pilot believed to have been held captive in Iraq since 1991.
Creating the special unit comes as U.S. intelligence agencies reported last week that an American pilot believed to be Speicher was spotted alive in Baghdad earlier this month.
A classified intelligence report circulated to officials March 14 said that Speicher was seen as he was being moved in Baghdad, although officials said the sighting could not be confirmed.
The joint program by officials of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, U.S. Central Command and other agencies also will conduct a nationwide search of Iraq for terrorists and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, said Lt. Cmdr. James Brooks, a DIA spokesman.
"The intelligence community has established a unit to do a countrywide discovery, exploitation and interrogation effort to identify and disrupt terrorist operations; and to identify, examine and eliminate (weapons of mass destruction)," Brooks said in a statement.
"Another function is to determine and resolve the fate of Capt. Speicher," Brooks said.
Speicher was declared killed in action after his F-18 jet was shot down by a missile over Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991.
Later, intelligence reports indicated that his plane had crash-landed and that Speicher had ejected. His flight suit was later found during a Red Cross mission to Iraq.
Several intelligence reports from the 1990s also indicated that Iraq was holding an American pilot believed to be Speicher, and in 2001 the Navy reclassified him from killed in action to missing in action.
In October, Navy Secretary Gordon England changed the status again to "missing in action, captured," effectively declaring Speicher a prisoner of war.
The Navy determined at the time that wreckage from the F-18, the recovery of Speicher's flight suit, Iraqi tampering with the downed plane and recent intelligence "continues to suggest strongly that the government of Iraq can account for him."
Baghdad has denied that it was holding Speicher and invited a U.S. team to visit Iraq last year to investigate. The Pentagon and State Department declined the offer.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters Friday that finding terrorists and deadly unconventional weapons are among eight key U.S. objectives in Iraq.
Rumsfeld said the United States hopes to "identify, isolate and eventually eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, their delivery systems, production capabilities and distribution networks."
U.S. forces also will "search for, capture, drive out terrorists who have found safe harbor in Iraq."
The troops also will "collect such intelligence as we can find related to terrorist networks in Iraq and beyond" and intelligence on "the global network of illicit weapons of mass destruction activity," the defense secretary said.
Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that he and other interested members of Congress have "come a long way from where we were," a reference to bureaucratic resistance to pursuing the Speicher case.
"Every hearing we have, every [congressional delegation] we have, we always mention this issue," said Mr. Roberts, whom intelligence agencies brief regularly on the Speicher case.
The Kansas senator said the Pentagon's Defense Prisoner of War Missing Person Office and the DIA are working on a new assessment of the case, based on the numerous intelligence reports that indicate Iraq is holding an American pilot.
"We're talking about a considerable number of people [in Iraq] who say they've seen an American POW," Mr. Roberts said.
The senator said he is holding out hope for the day when "we see him getting off an airplane" as a free man.
Saddam has admitted holding some POWs for decades. On Tuesday, Iran and Iraq exchanged about 200 prisoners captured by each side during their eight-year war in the 1980s, according to reports from official Iranian and Iraqi news services.
The Washington Times disclosed in March 2002 that U.S. intelligence agencies had new information indicating that Baghdad was holding an American pilot believed to be Capt. Speicher.
A U.S. intelligence report produced in March 2001 stated that "we assess that Iraq can account for Capt. Speicher, but that Baghdad is concealing information about his fate."
The report also stated that Capt. Speicher was "either captured alive or his remains were recovered and brought to Baghdad."
It also concluded that Capt. Speicher "probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis."